Sidewalk Toronto: While waiting for plan, consider these conflicting papers

The proposed master plan for the controversial Quayside ‘smart community’ project on Toronto’s waterfront is expected to be released to the public by the end of next week.

Waterfront Toronto, the tri-level government agency which is overseeing development of the entire port lands including Quayside, said earlier this week that Sidewalk Labs – a division of Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc. — will hand in its Master Innovation Development Plan proposal “shortly.’

According to the CBC it was delivered earlier this week.

The agency promised the proposed master plan will be made public within a week of getting it. Then the first round of public consultations on the plan will start July 15 leading up to a decision by Waterfront Toronto on whether it’s acceptable.

Agency chair Stephen Diamond told the CBC this morning one of the three volumes of the huge proposed plan deals with technology.

He also emphasized that while Waterfront Toronto had been “somewhat collaborating” with Sidewalk Labs on the plan in the past, the agency has made it clear “we are here to protect the public interest … The issues of privacy and data are very important issues.”

Diamond also said that if the agency doesn’t like the proposed plan “the project will not go forward.”

Until the proposed plan is released IT professionals watching to see it sets a global standards for a ‘smart city’ yet still meets privacy concerns can think about two recently-released and conflicting documents:

–On Wednesday the vice-chair of the House of Commons ethics and privacy committee, Charlie Angus, released a supplemental report to the full committee’s final report on privacy and digital government. The full report didn’t deal directly with Quayside. But in his report — relying on testimony of critics before the committee — he insisted co-operation with Sidewalk Labs stop until a final plan is presented to Waterfront Toronto. “Any “smart city” project ultimately cannot be deployed to serve a surveillance capitalism business model,” the report says.

The federal government is one of the Waterfront Toronto’s landowners, along with the province of Ontario and the city of Toronto.

“We are talking about an unprecedented extension of surveillance capitalism into the public and private spaces of Canada’s largest city,” Angus said in a news release. “The proponents have not done credible work of responding to the tremendous concerns raised by both international data experts and the Ontario Auditor General.”

“Google has deep pockets and a long memory. They’re not doing this as a charity project, and the business model is constant, total surveillance,” added Angus.

His report in part cites testimony last month from privacy and surveillance experts who testified before the Parliamentary committee on social media and the problems of online privacy. Shoshana Zuboff, Harvard Business School professor and author “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” told MPs that the Toronto project is the “front line” of the “war” against the public. Roger McNamee, venture capitalist and an early Facebook investor turned critic of the firm, told MPs he “wouldn’t let [Google] within 100 miles of Toronto.”

–On June 5, as Toronto council was considering how it will handle the master plan when it’s released, Halifax privacy lawyer and Sidewalk Labs consultant David Fraser wrote the municipality in support of the project.

“The executive committee needs to be aware that there is a strong disconnect between reality and what is being depicted in the commentary about the project,” he wrote. “It is a false assumption that the endgame of this iterative process is already set. Much of the rhetoric around the project assumes what will be in the [master plan], and these assumptions are oddly disconnected from the documents that are already public and the consultations that have taken place.”

“I have never seen a company take such an interest in the Canadian privacy milieu from the very beginning,” Fraser said. “I never had any sense of wanting to find loopholes or squeeze themselves into any such loopholes for their own advantage …

“I expect the see in the [plan] a data framework that goes above and beyond what municipal, provincial and federal privacy law require. Controls usually reserved for sensitive personal data will be put in place for all data.” Fraser noted Sidewalk has already suggested that an independent data trust will decide what data will be collected, how it will be protected and how it will be used.

Assumptions that Sidewalk Labs wants to use the community to track people exploit Canadian data and give it to Google for advertising are wrong, he added.

So will the master plan be an international model for municipal data collection and privacy? Will any plan backed by Google be trusted by certain critics? We’ll know shortly.

Also this week Waterfront Toronto said it has chosen a new CEO, former Ontario deputy minister George Zegarac. Previous CEO Michael Nobrega was one of three Ontario officials on the agency’s board who were dismissed by the new government of Premier Doug Ford following the release of a critical report by the provincial auditor. She concluded Sidewalk Labs received more information from Waterfront Toronto before the RFP was issued than other competitors.


The revitalization of the Toronto 800 hectare portlands started in earnest in 2001. Two years later the province created a permanent independent organization, which became Waterfront Toronto, to oversee the work. It includes a number of projects, but the  4.9-hectare (12-acre) site called Quayside has become controversial.

Waterfront Toronto had been thinking for some of making one community under its jurisdiction different. Some called it a ‘smart city,’ following other municipalities around the world who were making IT infrastructure investments. Waterfront Toronto’s goal was to get this going by mandating 1 Gpbs broadband connectivity in area residences and businesses. That started in 2013.

In March, 2017 the agency put out a request for proposals for an innovation and funding partner for the site called Quayside. Sidewalk Labs was chosen. Initially, there wasn’t much controversy, with the company talking about using data “to accelerate innovation and serve as a beacon for cities around the world.” Then critics began wondering how much data needed to be collected, how much of it would be personally identifiable, how it would be collected.

Sidewalk’s silence on the issue as it gathered information and public meetings were being held didn’t help.

Then in October, 2018 Sidewalk Labs proposed stepping back as the data collector. Instead, it proposed an independent Civic Data Trust be created to approve and control the collection and use of data collected within Quayside, including that by Sidewalk Labs. Under the proposal, Sidewalk said the trust would, “as a default, make de-identified data freely and publicly accessible to other companies or researchers.”

However, Ann Cavoukian, the internationally respected privacy expert — who along with Fraser — was a Sidewalk Labs advisor left the project shortly after because a Sidewalk official who said his company couldn’t promise all data used in the project would be de-identified of personal markers. Cavoukian insists de-identification of all Quayside data is the only way the project will be safe.

Then in April the Canadian Civil Liberties Union said it will ask a court to declare the Waterfront Toronto agreement with Sidewalk invalid because the agency doesn’t have a digital data governance policy.

(This story has been updated to more accurately reflect the recommendation of NDP report, which said the Government of Canada should suspend engagement with and commitment to Sidewalk Labs until a final, detailed plan is submitted to Waterfront Toronto)

Would you recommend this article?


Thanks for taking the time to let us know what you think of this article!
We'd love to hear your opinion about this or any other story you read in our publication.

Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

Featured Download

Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@]

Related Tech News

Our experienced team of journalists and bloggers bring you engaging in-depth interviews, videos and content targeted to IT professionals and line-of-business executives.

Featured Reads